“Jojo Rabbit” film review

A complex film about a complex subject, but finds a delicate balance between humor and respect for the subject matter. A satire or parody about Hitler and the Nazis isn’t anything new, from Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator to Bialystock and Blooms Springtime for Hitler and even Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards, one of the darkest times in the world’s history has been the source material for motion pictures. While Taika Waititi may not be breaking ground in using the Third Reich in this manner, he is offering a new perspective through the mind of a child of Nazi Germany. And that is where we spend the majority of the film–in the brainwashed mind of a child. His imaginary friend Hitler is a manifestation of the ideals Jojo (our central character) holds dear, misguided as they may be. Just as we interpret reality through our worldview that is shaped by our circles of influence, beliefs, past trauma, and the families in which we were reared, Jojo interprets the world around him in a similar fashion. Only his world was largely shaped by the effective Nazi propaganda that turned Germans against one another, and as you know, the rest is history. On one hand, he is still an innocent child whom cannot even remember to tie his shoes; on the other hand, he has been radicalized to completely buy into the ridiculous portrait of the Jews that the Nazis paint for the youth. On the surface, this film comments on how Jojo’s worldview of the Jews transforms; however, there are nods to other groups that were also seen as undesirables such as gays. The fact that is wasn’t only the Jews whom found themselves targets for annihilation is often forgotten by the masses. If Cabaret depicted the age of innocence that ended with the rise of the Third Reich, then JoJo Rabbit depicts innocence and disillusionment in the final days of the war. Though there are times that Waititi comes close to crossing the fine line that he is dancing, he never crosses it, which allows the film to be enjoyable and comment on coming of age in a rather provocative way.

Jojo is a lonely German boy who discovers that his single mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their attic. Aided only by his imaginary friend — Adolf Hitler — Jojo must confront his blind nationalism as World War II continues to rage on.

Unlike Bialystock and Bloom’s Springtime for Hitler in the brilliant musical The Producers, this satire on Hitler and the Nazis doesn’t quite hit it out of the park as well as Mel Brooks’ hilarious film. However, neither is it a disaster. That is likely to do with just how close to the atrocities of WWII that Jojo Rabbit takes us. If you’re worried about the film being in good taste, you needn’t. It may come close to being in poor taste at times and even questionable in others, but it remains in a position that can find ironic humor while not glossing over the evil actions of the Third Reich. It is imperative that audiences realize and accept that the movie is the manifestation of the propaganda-filled mind of a 10 year old German boy. We ostensibly experience the world through his eyes. Jojo lives in a complex world that is beginning to implode around him. All the while, when we first meet him, he remains committed to that for which the Third Reich stands. Taika Waititi takes a similar path to commenting on the central conflict to that which was followed by Chaplin, one that seeks to deconstruct fascist thinking.

Instead of simply the audience witnessing the events on screen that lead to destroying the foundation of fascist thinking, our central character of Jojo slowly learns just how vile the Nazis are, and that their way of thinking is a threat to humankind. How? For the full effect, you have to watch this film. But for the sake of argument, and not to over simplify, Jojo forms a friendship with a young Jewish girl hiding in the walls of his house. In a way, Jojo is in a similar position as audiences were in when Chaplin’s famous film was released–in a world in which Hitler and the Nazis were ever present. Here is where we have the creative layers that give Waititi’s film so much depth. Just as the world watched as Germans (and other Third Reich sympathizers) began to realize that the Nazis were masters of propaganda that brainwashed their own people, we watch as Jojo goes through a similar journey and transformation. As 21st century citizens of the “western world,” we often wonder just how otherwise intelligent, rational people could believe the ridiculous lies that were fed to them by the Nazis. This film paints an image of just how that worked. For all intents and purposes, if you convince the youth of your world to believe and buy into your radical platform, then the youth grows up to be the adults of your world. Thus, a following and movement is born.

When tragedy hits home, in a mindblowing way, Jojo comes face to feet with the reprehensible, seemingly unstoppable evil of the Nazis. This moment is when he realizes what he has been supporting and advocating. And even in his brainwashed state, even after he said the vile things he said, we still feel great empathy for him. And it’s this moment where he is tested to see if he is capable of growing as a person and thinking as an individual. Jojo’s eyes are opened, for probably the first time ever. He also begins to see how others, that he respects in Hitler’s army, have seen the evils of their ways and are doing what they can to make a difference. It’s also at this point that audiences realize that the captain, Jojo so admires, is gay and his (lieutenant, I suppose) is his lover. The subtext isn’t clear, but Taika tips his hat to this likely being the case. Whereas Jojo may not pick up on the captain’s secret, he is forced to accept that the captain could a sympathizer because he does something that Jojo realizes is not in line with policy and procedure. All throughout the movie, Jojo is challenged. Challenged by Hitler, challenged by the captain, challenged by his mother, and challenged by the Jewish girl hiding in his walls. It is by way of these consistent challenges that he grows as an individual and sees the flawed thinking of the Third Reich.

Jojo Rabbit is a provocative motion picture that provides audiences with a glimpse into the mind of a brainwashed 10 year old Nazi boy whose worldview radically changes through challenges to his identity. It may not be as edgy or as outstanding as we had hoped that it would be, but it is still a solid film that delivers a different perspective on a sensitive subject.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, feel free to catch a movie with him!

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“The Jungle Book” (2016) movie review

JungleBookDisney Nature meets beloved animated classic! Disney’s newest live-action remake of an animated classic surprisingly plays out very well. Unlike last year’s CinderellaThe Jungle Book strikes a perfect balance between creating a new more visceral experience of a familiar story and paying homage to the best of what the animated version had to offer–the essence of what made it “Disney.” As I was sitting in the theatre, I was amazed at how much the film truly felt like a classic Disney masterpiece that just happened to include beautiful cinematography, incredibly well engineered CG animals, and a plot; albeit, not a dynamic, thrilling, or deep plot, but a coherent plot nevertheless. That’s more than I can say about the original. Even though, I too like the classic. After the Cinderella cinematic schlock, I was not expecting much out of this film. But, I stand (or sit, rather) corrected. The Jungle Book is encouraging in that it proved to me that Disney can still tell a good story that is great for a wide audience and includes the core of the magic of an animated classic but successfully translates the narrative into a live-action movie.

Deep in the Indian jungles, an orphan human infant is found by a wise and caring panther named Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). Knowing he would die alone, Bagheera took him to a pack of wolves to be raised as one of their own. Being given the name Mowgli (Neel Sethi) spend his childhood as a wolf. When Shere Kahn (Idris Elba), a vengeful bengal tiger, threatens the wolf pack and the rest of the jungle, Mowgli decides to leave the pack and head for the man village–the jungle is no longer a place for a man cub. Guided and guarded by Bagheera, Mowgli must begin to adapt to his soon to be new life, but is having the most difficult of time. Throughout his journey through the misty jungles, Mowgli will encounter animals and beats he has never seen and even make some new friends along the way, including the lovable Baloo (Bill Murray). All the while, he must avoid an encounter with Shere Kahn while pressing on his journey of self-discovery and wild adventure.

Writer Justin Marks and director Jon Favreau demonstrate that a live-action remake of an animated Disney classic can be the best that a modern cinematic general audience movie can be and still hold onto the magic that has made it a story to stand the test of time. As I have not read the Rudyard Kipling work of literature upon which The Jungle Book is based, I’d like to imagine that this version of Mowgli, Bagheera, and Baloo’s adventures does the words of the English journalist and author justice. Unlike the original beloved movie devoid of any real coherent or conventionally structured plot, this remake tells a visual story supported by a simple but effective narrative complete with proper turning points, twists, and events. The pacing is also well-engineered, which creates a pleasant journey for the mind as well as the eyes. Using mostly on location jungle shots, supported with subtle sound stage sets gives this film a natural beauty that feels like something right out of a Disney Nature documentary. Contrary to how some CG animals can look, these creations were fantastically real–like you could reach out and stroke Bagheera’s ebony hair. Newcomer Neel Sethi is impressive to watch as Mowgli. He embodied the lovable characteristics of the animated version whilst adding in a modern twist. One of my favorite ways to evaluate an actor, in a genre such as this, is if he or she looks like they are having fun. And, Sethi definitely showed that he was having fun bringing this story to live-action cinema.

One of the reasons I was disappointed with the remake of Cinderella is that I missed the magic of the timeless music. Realizing that this was the first attempt to remake an animated classic (not a reimagination as is the case with Maleficent), it is entirely possible that Disney decided to make sure the next remake included the core of what made the animated version so beloved. And you will definitely find echoes of the original Jungle Book in this live action film. Most of the characters you remember from the original are also reprising their respective roles. Some of the roles are modified to either be more or less prominent, but it’s all very effective in building the story. One of the characters that is not as prominent in this version is the bola constrictor Kaa (Scarlet Johansson). But, in the relatively short amount of screen time, she delivers an exceptional performance, inclusive of the hypnotism, and through her interaction with Mowgli, Kaa reveals his backstory that adds to why Shere Kahn has vowed vengeance on his life. Just like in the original, King Luis (Christopher Walken) want to be just like Mowgli and possess the red flower.

There are certain elements of the original that are not included in the live-action version, but they are elements that did not fit in the world Favreau created for this film. Suffice it to say, I do not think that you will greatly miss those parts of the original because this Jungle Book holds onto the original magic and brings it into 21st century cinema. What about the talking animals??? Like with many movies, I did not read up on this one too much because I wanted to be surprised. Needless to say, I did not look up the voice actors so I was not prepared for the animals to speak. When Bagheera first began to speak, I was definitely caught off guard. However, I quickly accepted that the articulating mouths on the animals speaking perfectly good English in the jungles of India were as natural as the luscious green trees and crystal clear water or as natural as Mowgli’s ability to communicate with nearly every creature. The UN must have implanted Mowgli and his friends with those instant translator devices. But, because of the quality of the production, the adherence to the Disney magic that made the original memorable, and the solid writing, I was more than willing to engage in the suspension of disbelief in order to enjoy the movie to its fullest extent.

If you enjoyed the music, characters, and story in the original, then you are definitely going to enjoy this live-action remake. I am excited to see that the essence of the original animated classic is alive and well in this film. I hope this is what we are to expect from the next live-action adaptation of a Disney animated classic.

The Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers2The Avengers: Age of DULLtron. Get ready for the first big movie to usher in the summer blockbuster season. Only, you will probably find you enjoyed the first Avengers better. Writer-Director Joss Whedon returns with the highly anticipated sequel to the 2012 smash hit. The Avengers: Age of Ultron is a mesmerizing, overly stuffed science-fiction/fantasy that will, in the end, leave you hungry and unsatisfied. Unlike the previous installment, this flashy yet underperforming sequel lacks satisfying plot development. It’s almost as if the movie is at its climax the entire time, with no apparent windup, little exposition, and nearly non-existent rising action. There are movies that are two-parters that have no business being split, and there are others that are one-movie that desperately needed its story to be told over two films–this is the latter. There was such potential in the story, but the plot was executed poorly. If the writers paid more attention to and spent more time on plot development and less time on funny one-liners and running jokes, which are quite appropriate and help keep the dialog balanced, then we may have had a better movie.

The Avengers: Age of Ultron takes us on an a high energy journey around the world from Eastern Europe to Africa to New York City. At the center of the movie is a once-dormant peacekeeping program initiative that was designed by the brilliant engineer Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) that was inadvertently activated and developed an artificial intelligence of its own with a dark vision of what peace should look like. Taking to the internet, the AI peacekeeping program (aka Ultron) is everywhere and nowhere all at the same time. Teaming up with Captain America (Chris Evans), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Iron Man and the Avengers must overcome personal differences and ban together to confront the peacekeeping initiative that is hell-bent on destruction. Ultron, along with other enhanced humans designed by Striker will prove to be the most daunting enemy faced by our heroes, and will have to work together like they have never done before to save the world from catastrophe.

Sounds like a great movie right?!? Well, not so fast. As I mentioned in my opening paragraph, the movie truly had great potential and, despite its short comings, has a phenomenal cast. But, the story structure and well-crafted writing just wasn’t there. The plot is quite dull. It really is almost as though this was a glorified filler movie to make way for the next installment Avengers: Infinity War Part 1. From a technical perspective, the film is fantastic! The special-effects, practical effects, and CGI were woven together seamlessly. Both the cinematography and direction demonstrated a true gift for telling a story visually. And, to that, I applaud the filmmakers for a commitment to visual storytelling. With the exception of the casting of Maria Hill, a role better suited for Anne Hathaway than Cobie Smulders, the cast was once again brilliantly selected and truly brought the iconic comic book characters to life for the silver screen. The additional roles of Quick Silver (Aaron Tyler-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) were also cast impeccably. And I do not feel anyone besides James Spader could have brought such life and incarnate fear to the voice of Ultron.

Before I tackle the shortfalls of the plot, the character of Ultron needs to be examined. Most any competent filmmaker, or more specifically screenwriter, will tell you that a well-developed story needs a protagonist with a well-defined external goal (often accompanied by an internal goal), and in this respect this film checks that box off; however, a screenplay–especially one of this genre–needs a well-defined antagonist with both an external and internal goal as well. And in addition to the goals of the antagonist, we also need to love or love to hate the villain. Knowing WHY the villain/antagonist does what he or she does is paramount to proper character development. Unfortunately, the audience is not told why Ultron hates humanity so much, unless you count the CNN footage Ultron quickly scrubs through in his rushed genesis. It is never a good idea for a writer-director to just expect the audience to accept the actions of the antagonist without explanation or reason. Not knowing why Ultron is determined to create peace by destroying humanity without reasonable exposition does not create a well-developed character. Whether dealing with a protagonist or his/her opposition, it should never be expected for an audience to engage in blind acceptance.

Here’s where the plot went wrong. Now, in order to critique the plot, it is unfortunately necessary to reveal information that may, but not necesserilly, spoil the movie for those who are unfamiliar with the story or the comic book series. But, I will do my best to not reveal too much. At the center of the movie is this dormant peacekeeping AI initiative designed by Stark Industries called Ultron. Funny how it was never acknowledged in the previous film and came across as a plot gimmick just to hurriedly explain the vague origins of Ultron. The simple and elementary observation of the disregard for proper story structure is evident through the fact the movie lacks an adequate introduction and development/rising action. We basically go from a rushed first act and touch on the second act, then skip directly to a bloviated third act. Where’s the windup? Not here. Being a science-fiction movie, that means that certain laws of science should be adhered to in order to increase the believability and sell-ability of the story. Most anyone who has taken a science class in middle or high school knows that the higher the elevation, the lower the oxygen level, the lower the oxygen level, the slower the brain functions and the more mitigated the functionality of the lungs. I just don’t buy the fact that no one suffers from high altitude sickness when the Eastern European city hangs in the atmosphere above the mountains. The lack of oxygen isn’t even mentioned at all. Even if you buy the fact that the Avengers have somehow overcame this physiological obstacle, the citizens of the city are certainly bound by normal human respiration and circulation.

Over-all the movie is exciting and, despite its shortcomings, is a perfect movie to usher in the coveted summer blockbuster season. It is the first of many highly anticipated summer movies including Disney’s Tomorrowland and Universal’s Jurassic World. Hopefully the next installment in The Avengers series will make up for the structural and logical fallacies in this movie, and spend more time on the writing for the next one. Whether you’re a comic book or super hero fan or not, this is definitely a movie that will add excitement to your weekend. And, for those that are graduating this weekend and next, this film makes for a great way to start a weekend of parties and celebrations.